At Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac on Saturday, Aug. 25, the vineyard workers tossed the last of the small blue grape clusters into yellow bins lining the rows of vineyards.
With all the uncertainty the spring frost and summer drought left in its devastating wake on southwest Wisconsin, many nervously wondered what the final outcome would be.
The intense five days of hand-harvesting Wollersheim's 27 acres proved that the fruits of their labors battling this season's tumultuous elements paid off. Although Wollersheim is down 26 percent from last year with a total of about 74 tons of estate-grown fruit, this year looks like it might be one of the finest for Wollersheim.
"The quality of this year's fruit is some of the best I've ever seen in the 28 years I've been here," owner and winemaker Philippe Coquard explains. "We have a highly concentrated fruit that is the sweetest we've ever had."
However, this year's weather patterns had many farmers, including Wollersheim, continuously holding their breath. Right from the start, this season's forecast spelled trouble:
• March - early bud break: An unseasonably warm spring in March saw temperatures in the 70s, causing bud break about three to four weeks ahead of normal schedule.
• April - Frost: The warmth of March was obliterated by the frosts of April, with below-freezing temperatures swooping through the vinyards at night. The vineyard crew pulled all-nighters setting up wind machines and pulling a Frost Dragon heater behind the tractor to shoot out hot air to keep the vines warm. In the end, the frost desecrated 37 percent of the delicate early buds.
• May to July - Drought: Fifty-five days in a row without rain paired with hot days reaching 102°F sucked moisture from the soil. A drip irrigation system was implemented for the first time in the vineyard's history. But the soil yearned for a soaking rain, and forecasts teased but never delivered much-needed rainstorms.
But August finally offered to quench the parched soil with rain, and followed up with sunny days and cool nights. This perfect weather prescription aided in the development of nearly perfect fruit and accelerated ripening - helping to bump up harvest nearly three weeks ahead of what's normally expected.
"Winemaking has nothing to do with convenience or a calendar," Coquard explains. "But that's the definition of farming; you can never predict what's going to happen and when, and this year is evidence of that."
Wollersheim now begins the quick transition from harvest into winemaking, but Coquard and winery staff are relieved that the season finale of vineyard drama has wrapped.
"After all we went through, we ended up finishing so quickly and smoothly. And really, we lucked out," Coquard reflects. "We had blue skies every single day of harvest, and then it rained the day after we finished."
The silver lining of this year's drought for Wollersheim was that the lack of moisture within the soil prevented water dilution in the fruit while rapid water evaporation off the grapes from hot temperatures caused a concentration of sugars within the fruit. These crucial elements will be translated into wines full of quality and flavor.
"Winemaking is a judgment call," Coquard says. "You use what you've got - geography, weather, fruit. But this year's crop is definitely one for our record books."
The Wollersheim Winery sits on a scenic hillside overlooking the Wisconsin River, just across from Prairie du Sac. This national historic site was selected by European vintners over 150 years ago.
Established as the Wollersheim Winery in 1972, today the vineyards are comprised of 27 acres of French-American hybrid grapes.
This regional winery has received numerous awards for its premium grape wines, gaining recognition as being one of the leading wineries in the Midwest, including being awarded "Winery of the Year" at the San Diego International Wine Competition in 2012.
The winery is open for tours and tastings from 10 a.m.-to 5 p.m. daily, year-round.
For more information, visit www.wollersheim.com.